Homecoming Held For National Champions

mount olive

More than a thousand fans attended homecoming festivities for the Mount Olive College baseball team, which won the 2008 NCAA Division II Baseball National Championship Saturday. The celebration was sponsored by the Town of Mount Olive, the Mount Olive Chamber of Commerce and Mount Olive College.

Mount Olive captured its first-ever national championship in any sport with a 6-2 victory over Ouachita Baptist (Ark.) in the title game of the 2008 NCAA Division II Baseball National Finals at Sauget, Ill. The Trojans finished the season with a 58-6 record, including a perfect 4-0 mark at the National Finals.

“When I took this job 22 years ago, people asked me why. I said I didn’t know. Today, I know why,” Trojan head baseball coach Carl Lancaster told a cheering audience.

At the Scarborough Field entrance, a fire truck crane held a “National Champions” banner. Led by a police escort with sirens blaring, the team bus pulled into the parking lot. The Trojan players got off the bus and followed the Spring Creek High School Marching Band through a “tunnel” of fans holding “National Champions” signs. The team took their seats behind a table with the NCAA national championship trophy as the band played the Alice Cooper classic, “School’s Out.” Director of Athletics Jeff Eisen served as emcee.

The program began with an invocation from Dr. Chris Wood, Vice-President of Institutional Advancement at Mount Olive. Dr. Wood concluded his invocation with, “God is smiling down on Mount Olive today.”

Mount Olive College President Dr. J. William Byrd followed with remarks. Dr. Byrd talked about all the positive comments about the team he heard during his trip to Sauget, ranging from the hotel staff to tournament officials. He also praised the team for its accomplishment.

“Many student-athletes do great things during their college careers,” said Dr. Byrd. “But very few can claim to do what you did – win a national championship.”

Town of Mount Olive Mayor Ray McDonald then presented Lancaster with a proclamation.

“We proclaim today, June 2, 2008, as Mount Olive College Baseball Day,” said Mayor McDonald.

Lancaster then noted that the day was special for an additional reason.

“It was 22 years ago today that my son Jesse was born.” Jesse Lancaster, the Trojans’ starting left fielder and an All-Tournament selection at the National Finals, was serenaded with a chorus of “Happy Birthday To You.”

Lancaster then introduced assistant coaches Aaron Akin and Rob Watt, then introduced each of his players. He also “took a phone call” during his speech.

“Hello? President Bush? I appreciate the call, but I’m kind of busy right now,” said Lancaster into his cell phone.

Senior shortstop David Cooper spoke on the players’ behalf.

“The reception at the airport yesterday and the turnout here is just overwhelming,” said Cooper, also an All-Tournament selection at the National Finals. “We were spending a good part of the day signing baseballs to give away and it made us smile.”

After the ceremony, fans poured onto the field to take pictures while kids of all ages got autographs from the players and coaches. Among those in attendance was Beverly Blackwelder, daughter of the late Ray Scarborough. Scarborough, for whom Scarborough Field was named, was largely responsible for the return of baseball at Mount Olive College in 1980.

Trojan players and coaches have been appreciative and in awe of the attention they’ve received.

“It’s still very surreal,” said freshman Joseph Westbrook, who hit his first collegiate home run in the second round of the National Finals. “You couldn’t ask for a better crowd. It really means a lot.”

“Yesterday, coming back from the airport with the police escort and all the intersections blocked off, we felt like VIP’s,” said senior Jason Sherrer, who became only the second Trojan student-athlete in school history to be named to the Academic All-America First Team. “Coming in here with the marching band playing the fire truck holding the sign, it makes winning the championship even more special.”

“I never imagined seeing this many people here,” said pitching coach Aaron Akin. “It’s starting to feel real special.”

Mount Olive graduates 12 seniors from its national championship team, including the two pitchers who threw in Saturday’s title game. Casey Hodges went eight innings and Ryan Schlecht retired the side in order in the ninth on three straight groundouts to Cooper at short.

When asked what he remembers most from the championship week, Cooper said no one thing stood out. Then he was reminded how the championship game ended.

“Oh yeah, I guess those last three outs stand out.”